The Darkening Garden: Horror

The following is an entry reprinted from The Darkening Garden: A Short Lexicon of Horror, written by the World Fantasy Convention 2012 Encyclopedist Guest of Honor, John Clute. This is the first entry of several from The Darkening Garden to be reprinted on this site over the course of ten days. Some formatting has been changed from the original published form of the text. Bolded items within this entry can be found within The Darkening Garden as additional / complementary entries. – The Editors

Image © Andrio Abero

Horror is defined here, and is understood throughout this lexicon, as one of several genres or modes of the fantastic in literature. There is of course an element of convenience in this calving off of Horror so conceived from a larger overview which treats both fantastic and non-fantastic horror within a single conceptual framework. There is also an element of convenience in a connected presumption: that the theory of Affect Horror — crudely, that texts may be defined as Horror if they generate certain emotions — works more satisfactorily with non-fantastic Horror than with Fantastic Horror. Indeed it is hard to see how the congeries of story types that make up non-fantastic Horror could be sorted in any other way except through affect. Locating non-fantastic Horror in this fashion makes it easier to concentrate here on the special nature of Fantastic Horror, which is described in this lexicon as a pattern of story moves deeply and at times grotesquely responsive — like all genres of the Fantastic — to the nature of the world since 1750: attendance to the world precedes affect.

This is not a neutral or supine attendance; the first Gothic stories are not merely sensational. Like all the genres of the Fantastic, Horror is born at point when it has begun to be possible to glimpse the planet itself as a drama: a very dangerous time in the history of the West, because it is at this point that (to put it very crudely) Enlightened Europeans were beginning to know it all, were beginning to think that glimpsing the world was tantamount to owning it. Horror is (in part) a subversive response to the falseness of that Enlightenment ambition to totalize knowledge and the world into an imperial harmony that, soon enough, would become treasonous to dispute (viz Stalin). Horror — and the Fantastic as a whole — are conceived in contradiction of the imperialisms of the West. The Fantastic is Enlightenmemt’s dark, mocking Twin: Humbert Humbert’s Quilty. Bound to the world, the Fantastic exposes the lie that we own the world to which we are bound.

Of these contrarian modes, Horror is the extremest: Science Fiction, which might be called the Fantastic of the Case, declares that certain fixes answer the world, as though the world were composed of query (it is the least angry of genres); Fantasy (see Free Fantastic) repudiates the Wrongness of the world, and makes its escape from prison into a truer world (its rage may sublimate heavenwards, or not); but Horror (see Bound Fantastic) comprises a process of uncovering the true nature of the prison, which is seen to be inescapable, for the prison of the world is where the buck stops, huis clos. Horror exercises its rage ripping open the one-way gates to truth; after which is silence, a deep transparency of utter rage. Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” (1899 Blackwood’s Magazine) incorporates maybe the definitive — and certainly the best known — utterance of the nature of Horror in all literature, an ultimate gape of rage, a final saying of the world at the close. As the supernaturally meme-absorbent Stanley Kurtz approaches death, he gazes upon something not explicable as a vision of African landscape illegibile to aliens, or of atrocities he may have committed within it: but there is no God to damn him. What he gazes upon is the heart of darkness — the naked, impersonal malice of the world, the VASTATION consequent upon true seeing — stripped of all the impedimenta of false “civilized” darkness we have seen Marlow hoick up the Congo. By the time Kurtz cries out at last, “The horror, the horror!”, he has transited all that fiddle of story, and can only utter the final grammar of reality entire, a rage isomorphic with how the world is truly said, the still point where any great Horror story ends: nothing but true, intransitive. Horror is that category of stories set in worlds that are false until the tale is told.

The prescriptive four-part model of Horror given in this lexicon, in order to suggest the ideal course of the full Horror story, parallels but moves in the opposite direction from the four-part model of Fantasy proposed in entries by John Clute in The Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) ed John Clute and John Grant. The two models parody each other: despite the earlier creation of the Fantasy model, neither is meant to be thought of as precedent. The relationship of the sets of terms is easy to put in graphical form:

HORROR                    FANTASY
SIGHTING                  Wrongness
THICKENING             Thinning
REVEL                         Recognition
AFTERMATH              Return

The definitions and arguments proposed in the entries dedicated to these four terms may of course be read in any order; but they are also intended to read consecutively. The central arguments about the nature of Horror presented here might therefore be pursued in the following order: Horror (this entry); Affect Horror (to distinguish between that formatting of Horror and the course chosen here); Sighting; Thickening; Revel; Aftermath.

A further (but subsidiary) patterning connects the two sets of entries with a traditional temperate-zone four-part breakdown of the seasons. The resonances thus generated are not, in terms of this lexicon, exactly substantive; but they seem inescapable for anyone raised in a world subject to the grammar of the Seasons:

FANTASY                    SEASON
Wrongness                   Autumn
Thinning                       Winter
Recognition                  Spring
Return                          Summer

HORROR                     SEASON
Sighting                        Spring
Thickening                   Summer
Revel                             Autumn
Aftermath                    Winter

It should be noted that little attention is paid in this lexicon to texts which frustrate the model, or can be seen as stalled at some point in the grammar, or which parody the model. Horror, like any genre, has many mansions. In the full knowledge that the texts concentrated upon here do not conform to the normal canon of Horror, it has seemed preferable at this stage to focus on texts easy to read in terms of the moves here described. At the same time, the model does have heuristic uses over and above the elucidation of texts which fit it easily. It might be noted briefly (for instance) that much Affect Horror could be described as being stuck in the Thickening phase of the model (for reasons which seem moderately clear). It is also clear that Parodies and reversals and semblances mark some of the greatest instances of the modern Fantastic, a process to which this model is very clearly subject: a bald paraphrase of Peter Pan; Or, the Boy Who Would Not Grow Up (1928) might (for instance) unpack this great play as a Horror narrative trapped in unending Aftermath, though no one could actually experience the play without understanding it as — or also as — a Fantasy of Return.

It should also be noted — this is a caveat and an apologia which might appear in almost every entry — that models of grammatical moves like those described here for Horror and Fantasy have been constructed exactly to illuminate and to value the chance-taking — the opportunism — the pushing against the limits of Order that seems inherent in any creative act, and manifest in any live creation of Story. If rules have been created here, they are rules intended to generate extremely various outcomes. They are what might be called tone-rows in music, though of course they are hugely less stringent than the serialist tone-rows which exhale entire compositions or else. The models or moves suggested here are inherently open, therefore, to modulations, contradictions, fugal combinations of simultaneously uttered material, mirror reversals, spoofing. In fact the real danger of models of Horror or Fantasy like these is not that they are procrustean, but that they are the reverse: that the meaning and relationship of these sets of verbs can be adjusted to fit any size. In the end, however, there are constraints. The models for Horror and Fantasy presented here are, after all, attempts to articulate a profound and specific fastening of Story to world. After all the ludic displays attendant upon the uttering of grammars, that much is binding.

To summarize and to conclude: it is argued here that over the past 250 years there has evolved an understory or grammar that governs the literal telling of stories of Horror, and that the cast of Horror — the bloodsuckers, the eaters, the undead, the Doubles and/or twins surfacing out of the oppressed past into the mirror, the creatures of the Id, the Attempted Rescures, the fanatics, the elder races — that all these creatures who might be called the utterands of Horror are participants in a great parade, that they march truthwards to the tune of the Bound Fantastic, the tune of history turning out of Eden. The still centre of Horror may be the supernal intransitive howl of Kurtz, but the passage to that ultimate point — as in some great Theatre of Memory — is lined with utterands of the storyable, who remind us through their grimaces and caperings of the world that burned them into these shapes. They are expressions of the world. When we encounter Horror’s utterands in our waking dreams, we are communing with stigmata of the Earth, anguishes of the darkening of the garden.

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